Late October, three years ago, Eric Kissell built his daughter a coffin.
Money’s always tight, so he used some distressed cedar planks pitted with holes bored by carpenter ants and wood beetles. Then he filled the casket with cold beers and added some dry ice for a spooky fog effect.
“You can fit a lot of beer in a full-sized coffin,” Kissell says.
His daughter was thrilled. Guests at her Halloween party went nuts over Kissell’s macabre beer cooler.
Shoot, he thought. Maybe I’m onto something here.
After the party, Kissell stood the coffin upright next to the cedar garden beds he sells roadside near the busy intersection at 7th and Chambers.
It sold right away.
For 24 years, Kissell has scraped by, running a one-man landscaping business. “I fell face-first into making coffins,” he says, leaning against the white ’83 Toyota pickup you’ve probably seen cruising around town.
With a 6-foot gothic coffin standing tall in the bed, Kissell’s ride looks like a weathered prop from a lost crossover episode of The Beverly Hillbillies in which Jed Clampett meets the Addams family.
Kissell sells about 20 novelty caskets a year. At roughly $70 a pop, the coffin money covers a full month’s rent, he says. And for a guy living paycheck-to-paycheck, that’s a pretty big deal.
Standing with his arms folded across the words “Playboy Mansion Bouncer” on his blue T-shirt, he inspects the row of coffins by the curb in front of the pizza cart on Chambers. They’ve been out here for weeks; Kissell admits he’s a little surprised they haven’t been stolen or badly vandalized.
The worst, he says, is finding small plastic bags of dog shit left inside the coffins by lazy, a-hole dog walkers.
From the open driver’s side window of a white sedan stopped at a red light, a lady yells, “Those are awesome!”
“Buy one!” Kissell hollers.
“I would,” she shouts back, “but I live in Pendleton!”
“I deliver!” he manages to howl before she laughs and speeds off.
All kinds of people want coffins, Kissell says.
Some of his customers are looking for a kitschy coffee table. He remembers selling a coffin to a guy who converted it into a gun cabinet. Another he sold to a tattooed occultist who used it to store “spell books and eye of newt and tongue of toad, or whatever.”
Kissell’s strangest client, however, might be the teen who hired him to build a casket with handles and reinforced plywood backing so friends could lug him around in it.
“What kind of kid wants to be carried around the neighborhood in a coffin?” Kissell asks. “A weird kid.”
Weird kids, gun nuts and necromancers aside, Kissell’s coffins are mostly used for decoration. He delivered one recently to some normals living in the South Hills who spent thousands Halloween-izing their home.
Eugeneans go a little crazy celebrating Halloween, Kissell says, and he gets it: Halloween’s his favorite day of the year.
By late autumn, Kissell’s raring to blow off some steam. The summer onslaught of landscaping jobs has all but dried up. He’s got a little more money in his pocket than he’s used to, which feels good.
Also, his birthday is Nov. 1.
I ask Kissell if there’s a slim chance he was born at the stroke of midnight on Halloween.
“I asked my mom that,” he says. “She don’t remember.”
Even still, he likes to think so.